In a booming voice that filled the high-domed chapel, the priest implored his parsihioners to serve Christ as a way of relieving their weary souls.
"Trust yesterday's failures to God's forgiveness," he said. "Trust tomorrow's fears to His providence; take on today's burdens and trust in His help."
For the Rev. Guido John Carcich, who delivered the sermon, the words may have special meaning. For here in this devout southern parish, the man who pleaded guilty in a Baltimore courtroom in 1978 to misusing $2 million donated for the poor, the central figure in what became the Pallottine scandal, has started life again in the humble position of assistant pastor.
In Wilmington, he is known simply as Father John -- the priest who takes the late-night calls, who visits the sick and the shut-ins and the men in jail, who often takes "his little chair and little bag" and drives down to a motel at the nearby beach to borrow a stretch of sand for a quiet hour alone.
By all accounts the 11 months he has spent at St. Mary's Church here have been a success.
Only a tiney number in this parish of 600 families say they know that Carcich was the architect of fundraising for the Pallottine Fathers in the 1970s before scandal engulfed the small religious order.
The few who do ferociously protect that knowledge. "All I can say is he's grand. What's over is dead, and it should be buried," said St. Mary's 80-year-old organist, fiercely shaking her finger as if she could order the past away.
In many ways, Carcich has no past in this parish. Those who are aware of his background find lessons only for themselves, lessons of Christianity and love, of judgment and forgiveness.
"I don't hold it against Father," said choir director John Kane. "I'm sorry it happened in his life. I know what I see here now. . . . But just because he's a priest, he's not perfect," Kane said of the man who lives in the prim back rectory next door to the church.
It is a long way from the fortress-like row house on a bustling Baltimore street, where for years Carcich controlled a sophisticated money-raising mahcine that sent out millions of pieces of mail seeking donations with pictures of starving children and chances to win the "Pallottine Sweepstakes. "Instead of going to the Pallottine missions, however, much of the money was invested in speculative land deals and loaned to the politically powerful.
For more than two years, Carcich accepted $1,200-a-month consulting fees from a direct mail firm that did business with the Pallottines and lived a life befitting a man of worldly success. There were fancy meals, Las Vegas business trips, a fine car provided by the direct mail firm, invitations to political crab feasts and breakfast at the Maryland Governor's Mansion.
But the empire he built began to come apart in November 1975, with newspaper revelations that Carcich's religious order had loaned about $50,000 -- laundered through a series of intermediaries -- to Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel to help pay for his 1974 divorce settlement.
After a church-ordered audit, a government investigation and finally, an indictment, "The Good Father," as he was known to his friends, pleaded guilty on May 9, 1978, to a single criminal charge. He conceded in a court document that he had placed up to $2.2 million of Pallottine funds in "undisclosed bank accounts" and given out gifts and loans of up to $50,000 to fellow priests and friends.
The judge gave him 18 months probation, ordering him to live in Baltimore and work in a prison hospital for a year. After that he commuted on weekends to his boyhood parish, across the Hudson from New York city, to help out the priest. Last year, Carcich came to Wilmington -- his first official assignment since the scandal -- to work as associate pastor under the Rev. Robert Shea in this southern city of 44,000.
"To be honest with you, I think he wanted to get away from the usual places where people were asking him questions," said the Very Rev. Ralph Firneno, now the head of the Pallottine Fathers in the Eastern United States. "He wanted to be quiet and in private."
Carcich could not have chosen a better place.
Here at the corner of Fifth and Ann, he preaches from an old Spanish-style church that looks out on giant oaks and whitewashed verandas in a once-elegant, slightly fading part of town. Around the corner is the plaque commemorating the early home of Judah P. Benjamin, Confederate secretary of state. And a few miles away are the peaceful beaches of the Atlantic, where Carcich still indulges his lover for swimming. b
"We don't care about the past here," said one local priest, enraged that anyone would even mention the Pallottine scandal. "Our sins are forgiven, whatever they might be. That's our faith. If you confess, you are forgiven."
The portly priest has found a refuge in this riverfront town 400 miles south of Baltimore. But in style and speech, he is still the same exuberant Guido John Carcich.
There is the jaunty personality that had St. Mary's choir director Kane thinking the first time they met, "This priest bubbles over with life." There is the deeply tanned face, the dark hair with only a hint of gray. And there is the same self-assured smoothness that propelled Carcich from assistant parish priest to the top ranks of the Pallottine Fathers hierarchy.
"I always do very well," Carcich said with a tight smile when told after Fourth of July Mass that parishioners feel he is doing fine. Then he curtly declined an interview. Later he shut the rectory door on the same request. "There's no use coming here," he said evenly. "No way. No ma'am."
A few weeks ago, Firneno visited Wilmington to see how his old friend was doing. Carcich showed him around, particularly in the needy areas of the parish, taking him to a little school run by some black nuns, and old school that needed new windows, Firneno recalled.
Before Firneno left, Carcich got his promise that he would try to get $8,000 in Pallottine funds for the windows. The parish got the money, Firneno said. "No, he'll never end that," Firneno said with a laugh of Carcich's desire to provide for his people. "He'll always be that way."
Firneno stands by his fellow priest. He believes Carcich's "rainy day philosophy," forged as he grew up in Yugoslavia and then during the Depression in America, is what got him in trouble. "Put the money away . . . . that was the philosophy. There was never an intention to do anything wrong."
Carcich's attorneys had made a similar assertion pleading for probation in 1978. Carcich's "zeal to propagate the faith and assist the missions," rather than a desire for personal gain, had motivated him to put millions donated for charity into secret bank accounts and speculative real estate ventures, they said. The "undisclosed accounts," the lawyers argued, were there as a "contingency fund to protect the Pallottines from potential loss."
But most of Carcich's loyal Wilmington parishioners know nothing of this, nor do they want to hear that "Father" was once the center of a scandal.
Church activist Roy Clifton, scrubbing the grill in the kitchen of his storefront restaurant on Princess Street, recalled that when he was introduced to Carcich last year the name "Pallottine struck a familiar chord.
"I said 'There was a big thing in Maryland. Are you from there?' And he said no, he had just come from a parish in New York," said Clifton.
"It was possibly saying 'I don't want to hear anything about it,'" Clifton now believes. And Clifton, a transplanted Brooklynite who once studied for the priesthood himself, prefers it that way. "Whether he did right or wrong, he has to bear the pain himself."
Father Shea, Carcich's superior at St. Mary's, said he cares nothing "about any person's background. All I'm concerned about is he is a priest in good standing. . . . I'm pleased with the work he has done here."
And Velma Merrick found a lesson for everyone in Carcich's past. "We all think we're honest and moral, but if we've been shielded from these things, we don't know. If you were let loose in a bank or mint, what would you do? You don't know what you are, you just know what you hope you are," she said, tears brimming in her eyes."When a person has said he is sorry, that should be the end of it."
Carcich's guilty plea was, at least publicly, the end of scandal for the priest, who emerged from the courtroom with the support of his superiors in the church.
An audit done around that time revealed that the Pallottines had collected more than $20 million in cash donations in an 18-month period, but only a little more than $500,000 of that had reached the Pallottine missions. The bulk had been used up by the slick fund-raising campaign; the rest eaten up by investments.
All that has changed, according to Firneno, now the Pallotine's Provincial Superior, a title Carcich once held. "We're not taking in the volume we took in . . . . but when you subtract the expenses, the bottom line is good."
In 1980, the order had donation and investment income of nearly $5 million and after expenses gave more than $3.2 million missions and other causes, Firneno said. The "Pallottine Sweepstakes" is gone. So are the pictures of starving children. Instead, the order sends what Firneno likes to call "spiritual nose-gays" -- letters with a religious thought seeking donations.
"Are we feeling any further results of the shockwave? The answer is no. Are we living under it anymore? No, but it takes time," Firneno said.
Carcich who requested the assignment in the diocese of which Wilmington is a part, has become known in the parish as the warm-hearted priest who knows everyone by name. Everyone knows Father John -- but no one really seems to know him well, even Clifton, who sees him several times a week, sometimes over a drink at the rectory.
"From my personal experience, he is more a private individual," Clifton said.
Outwardly, he is the jolly, loving, homey priest. Kathy Boulogne, a young mother very active in St. Mary's school, knows this side, but there always has seemed to be something else, she mused.
"You know what my Momma always said," Boulogne almost whispered. "She said, 'He looked like somebody who has a cross to bear, a heavy cross to carry.'"